California Forum

Memories and magic of Yosemite

Yosemite is one of the jewels of America’s national park system, which was created 100 years ago.
Yosemite is one of the jewels of America’s national park system, which was created 100 years ago. Sacramento Bee file

Aug. 18, 1962, marked a historic day in Yosemite National Park: my first visit.

I was 12 and arrived in the backseat of a four-door Rambler. My family stayed in a Camp Curry tent. President John F. Kennedy was also there that Saturday. He arrived in a military helicopter and spent the night at the Ahwahnee Hotel. We both had scrambled eggs for breakfast. The president flew off the next morning, never to return.

I was luckier.

In the half-century since, I’ve been back to Yosemite dozens of times. I’ve experienced this glorious place as a child, a teenage Girl Scout, a 20-something camper, a young mom, a notebook-toting journalist and, lately, as a sexagenarian grandmother.

This summer, Yosemite Valley welcomed another prestigious sightseer. On June 17, the first sitting president since Kennedy landed in a helicopter on Ahwahnee Meadow. Barack Obama was there to talk about the centennial of America’s national parks, coming up Aug. 25. With a 2,400-foot waterfall in the background, he gave a speech and dropped his jaw like everybody else. “There’s something sacred about this place,” he said.

In 1962, Kennedy wore a suit and tie – and joked about refusing to climb Half Dome. Obama wore jeans and hiked with his family from Glacier Point down to the valley floor. Then, on Father’s Day, they tackled the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada falls. The Obamas left that Sunday afternoon, 43 hours after they arrived.

Again, I am luckier. For me, this is more than a nice spot to gape at scenery – or give a speech or buy mugs shaped like bears. It’s more, even, than a national park. Yosemite flows through my whole life like a sparkling fork of the Merced River. Every visit was unique, colored by the season, the companions and the specific location.

Independence Day, 1966. Long Beach Girl Scout Troop 145 was camped in Tuolumne Meadows, elevation 8,600 feet. I woke up, slipped my bare feet into my boots and headed off for a drink of water. There was an inch of ice on the bucket. Teeth chattering, I crawled back into my thin sleeping bag (who could afford goose down?) and prayed for daybreak.

Exactly a decade later, back in Tuolumne Meadows with friends. It was the night of July 4, 1976 – the U.S. bicentennial! Amid the sparklers and the campfire singalong of “America the Beautiful,” we couldn’t imagine a better place to celebrate.

October 1984 was the beginning of my long love affair with Wawona, the historic little community inside Yosemite’s southern entrance on Highway 41. Year after year, our family has rented good old Cabin 82, one of a few dozen privately owned cottages in the national park. That first time, my parents were there, along with my husband, and our two little boys, Noah, 3, and Nathan, 4 months. The Rambler was long gone, but we did see a bear on the porch.

During my career as a newspaper reporter, I grew adept at devising assignments that would take me to Yosemite. In 1990, I wrote about a huge fire that roared up the canyons and destroyed the village of Foresta. Then, in 1991, I did a “one year after the fire” story. Then, I did a “10 years after the fire” story. Now, I’m ready to come out of retirement to write, of course, the “26 years after the fire” story.

When poverty was my beat at The Sacramento Bee, I delved into the demographics of Yosemite’s visitors. (They tended to be affluent and white.) With reporters from other California newspapers, I covered the various federal plans for the park – all created with good intentions but quickly stymied by lawsuits and angry folks who like things the way they are. Another time, I profiled small business owners in the gateway towns of Mariposa and Groveland.

Once, I blush to say, I just drove up to Yosemite Valley with a Bee photographer and interviewed assorted tourists. I think we called it “Postcards from Paradise.”

There was, however, one big story that got away. Around 2001, I heard about a movement afoot to tear down the Hetch Hetchy Dam and restore the gorgeous valley it flooded. Then, the energy crisis hit – I dropped the idea, figuring no one would ever consider dismantling the dam and losing the electricity it generated. But Bee associate editor Tom Philp wasn’t so easily distracted. He wrote a series of editorials about reclaiming Hetch Hetchy Valley. That work won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

There are ghosts in Yosemite, and I’m not talking about Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, who saw the park together on horseback in 1903. These are personal ghosts. My dad and mom are gone now. So is my husband. Cancer claimed my childhood friend Kay Carlson, who was there on both of those long-ago July 4 camping trips. Whenever I sit in the parlor of the Wawona Hotel, listening to my pianist pal Tom Bopp play “The Graceful Ghost Rag,” those old spirits are there with me.

Each trip to Yosemite is unique, yet all are part of the same river of memory. The wind in the trees, the scent of the pines, the sun on the granite – those never change. Nor does the lightness of my heart whenever I set foot inside the boundaries of the national park. Even my hair is shinier. It’s magical.

Sometimes I feel I was there with Muir at the beginning, singing Robert Burns songs to ground squirrels. Or, even further back, with the Miwoks, living in harmony with nature during a thousand summers. I admit I missed the glaciers that carved out Half Dome and El Capitan – but that’s OK. It wasn’t Yosemite yet.

Next time I go, who knows? Maybe I’ll buy a bear mug.

It’s reassuring that, whatever turn my life takes, Yosemite is just up the slope, waiting for me.

Dorothy Korber retired as a reporter from The Sacramento Bee in 2008. She lives in Grass Valley, 193 miles from Yosemite.